New salmon plan thumbs nose at people of the Northwest and defies federal court ruling

BOISE — Federal agencies appear to have defied a federal judge’s order this morning when they released a status-quo salmon plan that may force the region back into court. 

“All four of the government’s salmon recovery plans to date have been declared illegal, and there’s nothing in this new plan to indicate a new direction,” said IRU salmon program manager Greg Stahl. “The two years since the last plan was ruled illegal were an opportunity to build a foundation for collaborative talks leading to durable solutions that benefit salmon, people and the economy. This plan won’t help us move that direction.”

The salmon plan finalized this morning by NOAA Fisheries was ordered by a federal judge in 2011. It was two years in the making, but appears to fail multiple legal and scientific litmus tests:

•    It proposes to roll back spill—water sent over dams to help young salmon reach the Pacific more safely.
•    It ignores the worsening impacts of climate change, which are already impacting salmon.
•    It ignores a federal judge’s explicit order to consider lower Snake River dam removal.

In his August 2011 ruling declaring the government’s 2008/2010 salmon plan illegal, Federal Judge James Redden specifically ordered the federal government to examine “more aggressive action, such as dam removal and/or additional flow augmentation and reservoir modifications” in its new salmon plan. The plan released today — called a Biological Opinion — fails on both counts and in fact proposes to roll back spill.

“This plan offers more of the same and in many respects is even worse than the last four plans, all of which have been overturned in federal court,” Stahl said. “This plan ignores the best science, sidesteps the court’s explicit instructions to do more for salmon, curtails the proven benefits of spill, perpetuates uncertainty and fails to address the impacts of climate change. This new salmon plan is also a poor way to start collaborative talks.”

The Biological Opinion was released on the heels of a study showing clearly that the people of the region want a new, collaborative path toward salmon recovery. The report, called a Long-Term Recovery Situation Assessment, was the result of a year-long process that included interviews with more than 200 stakeholders throughout the region.

“The report confirmed that Idahoans and others in the Northwest are ready to collaborate in pursuit of durable solutions to our salmon issue,” said IRU Board Member Tom Stuart. “From energy production to transportation and water use, the challenges and opportunities are numerous, but collaboration will be next to impossible while NOAA is deliberately plunging the region into another round of likely litigation.”

Spill is another distinct opportunity for progress missed in NOAA’s new Biological Opinion. A basic level of spill has been in place under court order since 2006, with significant benefits for salmon, and scientists say expanded spill could help even more.

“Instead of considering a spill test in its draft plan, NOAA has opted to roll back current spill to even lower levels and has rejected majority science and in the process,” Stuart said. “By issuing yet another status quo plan that does too little for salmon, NOAA and the Bonneville Power Administration have damaged momentum toward collaboration.”

Despite congratulatory self-evaluations and exaggerated reports from federal agencies, most of the 13 ESA-listed salmon stocks in the Columbia and Snake rivers remain at risk of extinction. While eight consecutive years of spill and favorable ocean conditions have provided modest improvements, many salmon populations, especially in Idaho, remain critically low or in decline.

U.S. taxpayers and Pacific Northwest ratepayers have spent $13 billion since the 1980s on salmon recovery measures that have not worked—with about $10 billion spent in the last decade alone. While some ESA-listed salmon and steelhead runs are slightly better off than they were in the 1990s, none are close to being recovered. Many remain at dangerously-low levels, similar to conditions that led to their protection under the ESA in the first place.

“Given the incredible sum of money already spent, ratepayers and taxpayers should expect to see a far greater return on their investment,” Stuart said. “It’s obvious federal agencies are spending lots of money on measures that aren’t working. It’s disappointing to see yet another salmon plan that fails to deliver for salmon, electric ratepayers or taxpayers. And it’s disappointing to see it released when we’re on the cusp of implementing collaborative talks that actually could make a difference.”